Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?


Macro Letter – No 79 – 16-6-2017

Central Bank balance sheet adjustment – a path to enlightenment?

  • The balance sheets of the big four Central Banks reached $18.4trln last month
  • The Federal Reserve will commence balance sheet adjustment later this year
  • The PBoC has been in the vanguard, its experience since 2015 has been mixed
  • Data for the UK suggests an exit from QE need not precipitate a stock market crash

The Federal Reserve (Fed) is about to embark on a reversal of the Quantitative Easing (QE) which it first began in November 2008. Here is the 14th June Federal Reserve Press Release – FOMC issues addendum to the Policy Normalization Principles and Plans. This is the important part:-

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from maturing Treasury securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $6 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $6 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $30 billion per month.

For payments of principal that the Federal Reserve receives from its holdings of agency debt and mortgage-backed securities, the Committee anticipates that the cap will be $4 billion per month initially and will increase in steps of $4 billion at three-month intervals over 12 months until it reaches $20 billion per month.

The Committee also anticipates that the caps will remain in place once they reach their respective maximums so that the Federal Reserve’s securities holdings will continue to decline in a gradual and predictable manner until the Committee judges that the Federal Reserve is holding no more securities than necessary to implement monetary policy efficiently and effectively.

On the basis of their press release, the Fed balance sheet will shrink until it is nearer $2.5trln versus $4.4trln today. If they stick to their schedule that should take until the end of 2021.

The Fed is likely to be followed by the other major Central Banks (CBs) in due course. Their combined deleveraging is unlikely to go unnoticed in financial markets. What are the likely implications for bonds and stocks?

To begin here are a series of charts which tell the story of the Central Bankers’ response to the Great Recession:-


 Source: Yardeni Research, Haver Analytics

Since 2008 the balance sheets of the four major CBs have grown from around $6.5trln to $18.4trln. In the case of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), a reduction began in 2015. This took the form of a decline in its foreign exchange reserves in order to support the weakening RMB exchange rate against the US$. The next chart shows the path of Chinese FX reserves and the Shanghai Stock index since the beginning of 2014. Lagged response or coincidence? Your call:-

China FX reserves and stocks 2014 - 2017

Source: Trading Economics

At a global level, the PBoC balance sheet reduction has been more than offset by the expansion of the balance sheets of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) and European Central Bank (ECB), however, a synchronous balance sheet contraction by all the major CBs is likely to be of considerable concern to financial market participants globally.

An historical perspective

Have CB balance sheets ever been as large as they are today? Indeed they have. The chart below which terminates in 2011, shows the evolution of the Fed balance sheet since its inception in 1913:-


Source: Federal Reserve, Haver Analytics

The increase in the size of the Fed balance sheet during the period of the Great Depression and WWII was related to a number of factors including: gold inflows, what Friedman and Schwartz termed “precautionary demand” for reserves by commercial banks, lack of alternative assets, changes in reserve requirements, expansion of income and war financing.

For a detailed review of all these factors, this paper from 2016 – How was the Quantitative Easing Program of the 1930s Unwound? By Matthew Jaremski and Gabriel Mathy – makes fascinating reading, here’s the abstract:-

Outside of the recent past, excess reserves have only concerned policymakers in one other period: The Great Depression of the 1930s. This historical episode thus provides the only guidance about the Fed’s current predicament of how to unwind from the extensive Quantitative Easing program. Excess reserves in the 1930s were never actively unwound through a reduction in the monetary base. Nominal economic growth swelled required reserves while an exogenous reduction in monetary gold inflows due to war embargoes in Europe allowed banks to naturally reduce their excess reserves. Excess reserves fell rapidly in 1941 and would have unwound fully even without the entry of the United States into World War II. As such, policy tightening was at no point necessary and likely was even responsible for the 1937-1938 recession.

During the period from April 1937 to April 1938 the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell from 194 to 100. Monetarists, such as Friedman, blamed the recession on a tightening of money supply in 1936 and 1937. I don’t believe Friedman’s censure is lost on the FOMC today: past Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke, is regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the causes and policy errors of the Great Depression.

But is the size of a CB balance sheet a determinant of the direction of the stock market? A richer data set is to be found care of the Bank of England (BoE). They provide balance sheet data going back to 1694, although the chart below, care of FRED, starts in 1701:-


Source: Federal Reserve, Bank of England

The BoE really only became a CB, in the sense we might recognise today, as a result of the Banking Act of 1844 which granted it a monopoly on the issuance of bank notes. The chart below shows the performance of the FT-All Share Index since 1700 (please ignore the reference to the Pontifical change, this was the only chart, offering a sufficiently long history, which I was able to discover in the public domain):-

UK-equities-1700-2012 Stockmarket Almanac

Source: The Stock Almanac

The first crisis to test the Bank’s resolve was the panic of 1857. During this period the UK stock market barely changed whilst the BoE balance sheet expanded by 21% between 1857 and 1859 to reach 10.5% of GDP: one might, however, argue that its actions were supportive.

The next crisis, the recession of 1867, was precipitated by the end of the American Civil War and, of more importance to the financial system, the demise of Overund and Gurney, “the Bankers Bank”, which was declared insolvent in 1866. Perhaps surprisingly, the stock market remained relatively calm and the BoE balance sheet expanded at a more modest 20% over the two years to 1858.

Financial markets became a little more interconnected during the Panic of 1873. This commenced with the “Gründerzeit” or “Founders” crash on the Vienna Stock Exchange. It sent shockwaves around the world. The UK stock market declined by 31% between 1873 and 1878. The BoE may have exacerbated the decline, its balance sheet contracted by 14% between 1873 and 1875. Thereafter the trend reversed, with an expansion of 30% over the next four years.

I am doubtful about the BoE balance sheet contraction between 1873 and 1875 being a policy mistake. 1873 was in fact the beginning of the period known as the Long Depression. It lasted until 1896. Nine years before the end of this 20 year depression the stock market bottomed (1887). It then rose by 74% over the next 11 years.

The First World War saw the stock market decline, reaching its low in 1917. From juncture it rallied, entirely ignoring the post-war recession of 1919 to 1921. Its momentum was only curtailed by the Great Crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression of 1930-1931.

Part of the blame for the severity of the Great Depression may be levelled at the BoE, its balance sheet expanded by 77% between 1928 and 1929. It then remained relatively stable despite Sterling’s departure from the Gold Standard in 1931 and only began to expand again in 1933 and 1934. Its balance sheet as a percentage of GDP was by this time at its highest since 1844, due to the decline in GDP rather than any determined effort to expand the balance sheet on the part of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street. At the end of 1929 its balance sheet stood at £537mln, by the end of 1934 it had reached £630mln, an increase of just 17% over five traumatic years. The UK stock market, which had bottomed in 1931 – the level it had last traded in 1867 – proceeded to rally for the next five years.

Adjustment without tightening

History, on the basis of the data above, is ambivalent about the impact the size of a CB’s balance sheet has on the financial markets. It is but one of the factors which influences monetary conditions, the others are the availability of credit and its price.

George Selgin described the Fed’s situation clearly in a post earlier this year for The Cato Institute – On Shrinking the Fed’s Balance Sheet. He begins by looking at the Fed pre-2008:-

…the Fed got by with what now seems like a modest-sized balance sheet, the liabilities of which consisted mainly of circulating Federal Reserve notes, supplemented by Treasury and GSE deposit balances and by bank reserve balances only slightly greater than the small amounts needed to meet banks’ legal reserve requirements. Because banks held few excess reserves, it took only modest adjustments to the size of the Fed’s balance sheet, achieved by means of open-market purchases or sales of short-term Treasury securities, to make credit more or less scarce, and thereby achieve the Fed’s immediate policy objectives. Specifically, by altering the supply of bank reserves, the Fed could  influence the federal funds rate — the rate banks paid other banks to borrow reserves overnight — and so keep that rate on target.

Then comes the era of QE – the sea-change into something rich and strange. The purchase of long-term Treasuries and Mortgage Backed Securities is funded using the excess reserves of the commercial banks which are held with the Fed. As Selgin points out this means the Fed can no longer use the federal funds rate to influence short-term interest rates (the emphasis is mine):-

So how does the Fed control credit now? Instead of increasing or reducing the availability of credit by adding to or subtracting from the supply of Fed deposit balances, the Fed now loosens or tightens credit by controlling financial institutions’ demand for such balances using a pair of new monetary control devices. By paying interest on excess reserves (IOER), the Fed rewards banks for keeping balances beyond what they need to meet their legal requirements; and by making overnight reverse repurchase agreements (ON-RRP) with various GSEs and money-market funds, it gets those institutions to lend funds to it.

Between them the IOER rate and the implicit ON-RRP rate define the upper and lower limits, respectively, of an effective federal funds rate target “range,” because most of the limited trading that now goes on in the federal funds market consists of overnight lending by GSEs (and the Federal Home Loan Banks especially), which are not eligible for IOER, to ordinary banks, which are. By raising its administered rates, the Fed encourages other financial institutions to maintain larger balances with it, instead of trading those balances for other interest-earning assets. Monetary tightening thus takes the form of a reduced money multiplier, rather than a reduced monetary base.

Selgin goes on to describe this as Confiscatory Credit Control:-

…Because instead of limiting the overall availability of credit like it did in the past, the Fed now limits the credit available to other prospective borrowers by grabbing more for itself, which it then passes on to the U.S. Treasury and to housing agencies whose securities it purchases.

The good news is that the Fed can adjust its balance sheet with relative ease (emphasis mine):-

It’s only because the Fed has been paying IOER at rates exceeding those on many Treasury securities, and on short-term Treasury securities especially, that banks (especially large domestic and foreign banks) have chosen to hoard reserves. Even today, despite rate increases, the IOER rate of 75 basis points exceeds yields on most Treasury bills.  Were it not for this difference, banks would trade their excess reserves for Treasury securities, causing unwanted Fed balances to be passed around like so many hot-potatoes, and creating new bank deposits in the process. Because more deposits means more required reserves, banks would eventually have no excess reserves to dispose of.

Phasing out ON-RRP, on the other hand, would eliminate the artificial boost that program has been giving to non-bank financial institutions’ demand for Fed balances.

Because phasing out ON-RRP makes more reserves available to banks, while reducing IOER rates reduces banks’ own demand for such reserves, both policies are expansionary. They don’t alter the total supply of Fed balances. Instead they serve to raise the money multiplier by adding to banks’ capacity and willingness to expand their own balance sheets by acquiring non-reserve assets. But this expansionary result is a feature, not a bug: as former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder observed in December 2013, the greater the money multiplier, the more the Fed can shrink its balance sheet without over-tightening. In principle, so long as it sells enough securities, the Fed can reduce its ON-RRP and IOER rates, relative to prevailing market rates, without missing its ultimate policy targets.

Selgin expands, suggesting that if the Fed decide to announce a fixed schedule for adjustment (which they have) then they may employ another tool from their armoury, the Term Deposit Facility:-

…to the extent that the Fed’s gradual asset sales fail to adequately compensate for a multiplier revival brought about by its scaling-back of ON-RRP and IOER, the Fed can take up the slack by sufficiently raising the return on its Term Deposits.

And the Fed’s federal funds rate target? What happens to that? In the first place, as the Fed scales back on ON-RRP and IOER, by allowing the rates paid through these arrangements to decline relative to short-term Treasury rates, its administered rates will become increasingly irrelevant. The same changes, together with concurrent assets sales, will make the effective federal funds rate more relevant, by reducing banks’ excess reserves and increasing overnight borrowing. While the changes are ongoing, the Fed would continue to post administered rates; but it could also revive its pre-crisis practice of announcing a single-valued effective funds rate target. In time, the latter target could once again be more-or-less precisely met, making it unnecessary for the Fed to continue referring to any target range.

With unemployment falling and economic growth steady the Fed are expected to tighten monetary policy further but the balance sheet adjustment needs to be handled carefully, conditions may look benign but the Fed ultimately holds more of the nation’s deposits than at any time since the end of WWII. Bank lending (last at 1.6%) is anaemic at best, as the chart below makes clear:-


Source: Federal Reserve, Zero Hedge

The global perspective

The implications of balance sheet adjustment for the US have been discussed in detail but what about the rest of the world? In an FT Article – The end of global QE is fast approaching – Gavyn Davies of Fulcrum Asset Management makes some projections. He sees global QE reaching a plateau next year and then beginning to recede, his estimate for the Fed adjustment is slightly lower than the schedule announced last Wednesday:-


Source: FT, Fulcrum Asset Management

He then looks at the previous liquidity injections relative to GDP – don’t forget 2009 saw the world growth decline by -0.8%:-

Fulcrum CB Liquidity Injections - March 2017 forecast

Source: IMF, National Data, Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

It is worth noting that the contraction of Emerging Market CB liquidity during 2016 was principally due to the PBoc reducing their foreign exchange reserves. The ECB reduction of 2013 – 2015 looks like a policy mistake which they are now at pains to rectify.

Finally Davies looks at the breakdown by institution. The BoJ continues to expand its balance sheet, rising above 100% of GDP, whilst eventually the ECB begins to adjust as it breaches 40%:-

Fulcrum Estimates of CB Balance sheets - March 2017 

Source: Haver Analytics, Fulcrum Asset Management

I am not as confident as Davies about the ECB’s ability to reverse QE. They were never able to implement a European equivalent of the US Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which incorporated the Troubled Asset Relief Program – TARP and the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Europe’s banking system remains inherently fragile.

ProPublica – Bailout Costs – gives a breakdown of cost of the US bailout. The policies have proved reasonable successful and at little cost the US tax payer. Since initiation in 2008 outflows have totalled $623.4bln whilst the inflows amount to $708.4bln: a net profit to the US government of $84.9bln. Of course, with $455bln of troubled assets still outstanding, there is still room for disappointment.

The effect of TARP was to unencumber commercial banks. Freed of their NPL’s they were able to provide new credit to the real economy once more. European banks remain saddled with an abundance of NPL’s; her governments have been unable to agree on a path to enlightenment.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The chart below shows a selection of CB balance sheets as a percentage of GDP. It is up to the end of 2016:-


SNB: Swiss National Bank, BoC: Bank of Canada, CBC: Central Bank of Taiwan, Riksbank: Swedish National Bank

Source: National Inflation Association

The BoJ has since then expanded its balance sheet to 95.5% and the ECB, to 32%. With the Chinese economy still expanding (6.9% March 2017) the PBoC has seen its ratio fall to 45.4%.

More important than the sheer scale of CB balance sheets, the global expansion has changed the way the world economy works. Combined CB balance sheets ($22trln) equal 21.5% of global GDP ($102.4trln). The assets held are predominantly government and agency bonds. The capital raised by these governments is then invested primarily in the public sector. The private sector has been progressively crowded out of the world economy ever since 2008.

In some ways this crowding out of the private sector is similar to the impact of the New Deal era of 1930’s America. The private sector needs to regain pre-eminence but the transition is likely to be slow and uneven. The tide may be about to turn but the chance for policy mistakes, as flows reverse, is extremely high.

For stock markets the transition to QT – quantitative tightening – may be neutral but the risks are on the downside. For government bond markets there are similar concerns: who will buy the bonds the CBs need to sell? If interest rates normalise will governments be forced to tighten their belts? Will the private sector be in a position to fill the vacuum created by reduced public spending, if they do?

There is an additional risk. Yield curve flattening. Banks borrow short and lend long. When yield curves are positively sloped they can quickly recapitalise their balance sheets: when yield curves are flat, or worse still inverted, they cannot. Increases in reserve requirements have made government bonds much more attractive to hold than other securities or loans. The Commercial Bank Loan Creation chart above may be seen as a warning signal. The mechanism by which CBs foster credit expansion in the real economy is still broken. A tapering or an adjustment of CB balance sheets, combined with a tightening of monetary policy, may have profound unintended consequences which will be magnified by a severe shakeout in over-extended stock and bond markets. Caveat emptor.

Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE


Macro Letter – No 65 – 11-11-2016

Yield Curve Control – the road to infinite QE

  • The BoJ unveiled their latest unconventional monetary policy on 21st September
  • In order to target 10 year yields QE must be capable of being infinite
  • Infinite Japanese government borrowing at zero cost will eventually prove inflationary
  • The financial markets have yet to test the BoJ’s resolve but they will

Zero Yield 10 year

Ever since central banks embarked on quantitative easing (QE) they were effectively taking control of their domestic government yield curves. Of course this was de facto. Now, in Japan, it has finally been declared de jure since the Bank of Japan (BoJ) announced the (not so) new policy of “Yield Curve Control”.  New Framework for Strengthening Monetary Easing: “Quantitative and Qualitative Monetary Easing with Yield Curve Control”, published on 21st September, is a tacit admission that BoJ intervention in the Japanese Government Bond market (JGB) is effectively unlimited.  This is how they described it (the emphasis is mine):-

The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that 10-year JGB yields will remain more or less at the current level (around zero percent). With regard to the amount of JGBs to be purchased, the Bank will conduct purchases more or less in line with the current pace — an annual pace of increase in the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings at about 80 trillion yen — aiming to achieve the target level of a long-term interest rate specified by the guideline. JGBs with a wide range of maturities will continue to be eligible for purchase…

By the end of September 2016 the BoJ owned JPY 340.9trln (39.9%) of outstanding JGB issuance – they cannot claim to conduct purchases “more of less in line with the current pace” and maintain a target 10 year yield. Either they will fail to maintain the 10 year yield target in order to maintain their purchase target of JPY 80trln/annum or they will forsake their purchase target in order to maintain the 10 year yield target. Either they are admitting that the current policy of the BoJ (and other central banks which have embraced quantitative easing) is a limited form of “Yield Curve Control” or they are announcing a sea-change to an environment where the target yield will take precedence. If it is to be the latter, infinite QE is implied even if it is not stated for the record.

Zero Coupon Perpetuals

I believe the 21st September announcement is a sea-change. My concern is how the BoJ can ever hope to unwind the QE. One suggestion coming from commentators but definitely not from the BoJ, which gained credence in April – and again, after Ben Bernanke’s visit to Tokyo in July – is that the Japanese government should issue Zero Coupon Perpetual bonds.  Zero-coupon bonds are not a joke – 28th August – by Edward Chancellor discusses the subject:-

Bernanke’s latest bright idea is that the Bank of Japan, which has bought up close to half the country’s outstanding government debt, should convert its bond holdings into zero-coupon perpetual securities – that is, financial instruments with no intrinsic value.

The difference between a central bank owning zero-coupon perpetual notes and conventional bonds is that the former cannot be sold to withdraw excess liquidity from the banking system. That means the Bank of Japan would lose a key tool in controlling inflation. So as expectations about rising prices blossomed, Japan’s decades-long battle against deflation would finally end. There are further benefits to this proposal. In one fell swoop, Japan’s public-debt overhang would disappear. As the government’s debt-service costs dried up, Tokyo would be able to fund massive public works.

In reality a zero coupon perpetual bond looks suspiciously like good old-fashion fiat cash, except that the bonds will be held in dematerialisied form – you won’t need a wheel-barrow:-


Source: Washington Post

Issuing zero coupon perpetuals in exchange for conventional JGBs solves the debt problem for the Japanese government but leaves the BoJ with a permanently distended balance sheet and no means of reversing the process.

Why change tack?

Japan has been encumbered with low growth and incipient deflation for much longer than the other developed nations. The BoJ has, therefore, been at the vanguard of unconventional policy initiatives. This is how they describe their latest experiment:-

QQE has brought about improvements in economic activity and prices mainly through the decline in real interest rates, and Japan’s economy is no longer in deflation, which is commonly defined as a sustained decline in prices. With this in mind, “yield curve control,” in which the Bank will seek for the decline in real interest rates by controlling short-term and long-term interest rates, would be placed at the core of the new policy framework.  

The experience so far with the negative interest rate policy shows that a combination of the negative interest rate on current account balances at the Bank and JGB purchases is effective for yield curve control. In addition, the Bank decided to introduce new tools of market operations which will facilitate smooth implementation of yield curve control.

The new tools introduced to augment current policy are:-

  • Fixed-rate purchase operations. Outright purchases of JGBs with yields designated by the Bank in order to prevent the yield curve from deviating substantially from the current levels.
  • Fixed-rate funds-supplying operations for a period of up to 10 years – extending the longest maturity of the operation from 1 year at previously.

The reality is that negative interest rate policy (NIRP) has precipitated an even swifter decline in the velocity of monetary circulation. The stimulative impact of expanding the monetary base is negated by the collapse it its circulation.

An additional problem has been with the mechanism by which monetary stimulus is transmitted to the real economy – the banking sector. Bank lending has been stifled by the steady flattening of the yield curve. The chart below shows the evolution since December 2012:-


Source: Bloomberg, Daiwa Capital Markets Europe

10yr JGB yields have not exceeded 2% since 1998. At that time the base rate was 0.20% – that equates to 180bp of positive carry. Today 40yr JGBs yield 0.57% whilst maturities of 10 years or less trade at negative yields. Little wonder that monetary velocity is declining.

The tightening of bank reserve requirements in the aftermath of the great financial recession has further impeded the provision of credit. It is hardly optimal for banks to lend their reserves to the BoJ at negative rates but they also have scant incentive to lend to corporates when government bond yields are negative and credit spreads are near to historic lows. Back in 1998 a AA rated 10yr corporate bond traded between 40bp and 50bp above 10yr JGBs, the chart below shows where they have traded since 2003:-


Source: Quandl

For comparison the BofA Merrill Lynch US Corporate AA Option-Adjusted Spread is currently at 86bp off a post 2008 low of 63bp seen in April and June 2014. In the US, where the velocity of monetary circulation is also in decline, banks can borrow at close to the zero bound and lend for 10 years to an AA name at around 2.80%. Their counterparts in Japan have little incentive when the carry is a miserly 0.20%.

This is how the BoJ describe the effect NIRP has had on lending to corporates. They go on to observe that the shape of the yield curve is an important factor for several reasons:-

The decline in JGB yields has translated into a decline in lending rates as well as interest rates on corporate bonds and CP. Financial institutions’ lending attitudes continue to be proactive. Thus, so far, financial conditions have become more accommodative under the negative interest rate policy. However, because the decline in lending rates has been brought about by reducing financial institutions’ lending margins, the extent to which a further decline in the yield curve will lead to a decline in lending rates depends on financial institutions’ lending stance going forward.

The impact of interest rates on economic activity and prices as well as financial conditions depends on the shape of the yield curve. In this regard, the following three points warrant attention. First, short- and medium-term interest rates have a larger impact on economic activity than longer-term rates. Second, the link between the impact of interest rates and the shape of the yield curve may change as firms explore new ways of raising funds such as issuing super-long-term corporate bonds under the current monetary easing, including the negative interest rate policy. Third, an excessive decline and flattening of the yield curve may have a negative impact on economic activity by leading to a deterioration in people’s sentiment, as it can cause uncertainty about the sustainability of financial functioning in a broader sense.

The BoJ’s hope of stimulating bank lending is based on the assumption that there is genuine demand for loans from corporations’: and that those corporations’ then invest in the real-economy. The chart below highlights the increasing levels of Japanese share buybacks over the last five years:-


Source: FT, Goldman Sachs

Share buybacks inflate stock prices and, when buybacks are financed with debt, alter the capital structure. None of this zeitech stimulates lasting economic growth.

Conclusion and investment opportunities

If zero 10 year JGB yields are unlikely to encourage banks to lend and demand from corporate borrowers remains negligible, what is the purpose of the BoJ policy shift? I believe they are creating the conditions for the Japanese government to dramatically increase spending, safe in the knowledge that the JGB yield curve will only steepen beyond 10 year maturity.

I do not believe yield curve control will improve the economics of bank lending at all. According to World Bank data the average maturity of Japanese corporate syndicated loans in 2015 was 4.5 years whilst for corporate bonds it was 6.9 years. Corporate bond issuance accounted for only 5% of total bond issuance in Japan last year – in the US it was 24%. Even with unprecedented low interest rates, demand to borrow for 15 years and longer will remain de minimis.

Financial markets will begin to realise that, whilst the BoJ has not quite embraced the nom de guerre of “The bank that launched Helicopter Money”, they have, assuming they don’t lose their nerve, embarked on “The road to infinite QE”. Under these conditions the JPY will decline and the Japanese stock market will rise.

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?


Macro letter – No 61 – 16-09-2016

Is the “flight to quality” effect breaking down?

  • 54% of government bonds offered negative yields at the end of August
  • Corporate bond spreads did not widen during last week’s decline in government bonds
  • Since July the dividend yield on the S&P500 has been higher than the yield on US 30yr bonds
  • In a ZIRP to NIRP world the “capital” risk of government bonds may be under-estimated

Back in 2010 I switched out of fixed income securities. I was much too early! Fortunately I had other investments which allowed me to benefit from the extraordinary rally in government bonds, driven by the central bank quantitative easing (QE) policies.

In the aftermath of Brexit the total outstanding amount of bonds with negative yields hit $13trln – that still leaves $32trln which offer a positive return. This is alarming nonetheless, according to this 10th July article from ZeroHedge, a 1% rise in yields would equate to a mark-to-market loss of $2.4trln. The chart below shows the capital impact of a 1% yield change for different categories of bonds:-


Source: ZeroHedge

Looked at another way, the table above suggests that the downside risk of holding US Treasuries, in the event of a 1% rise in yields, is 2.8 times greater than holding Investment Grade corporate bonds.

Corporate bonds, even of investment grade, traditionally exhibit less liquidity and greater credit risk, but, in the current, ultra-low interest rate, environment, the “capital” risk associated with government bonds is substantially higher. It can be argued that the “free-float” of government bonds has been reduced by central bank buying. A paper from the IMF – Government Bonds and Their Investors: What Are the Facts and Do They Matter? provides a fascinating insight into government bond holdings by investor type. The central bank with the largest percentage holding is the Bank of England (BoE) 19.7% followed by the Federal Reserve (Fed) 11.5% and the Bank of Japan (BoJ) 8.3% – although the Japanese Post Office, with 29%, must be taken into account as well. The impact of central bank buying on secondary market liquidity may be greater, however, since the central banks have principally been accumulating “on the run” issues.

Since 2008, financial markets in general, and government bond markets in particular, have been driven by central bank policy. Fear about tightening of monetary conditions, therefore, has more impact than ever before. Traditionally, when the stock market falls suddenly, the price of government bonds rises – this is the “flight to quality” effect. It also leads to a widening of the spread between “risk-free” assets and those carrying greater credit and liquidity risk. As the table above indicates, however, today the “capital” risk associated with holding government securities, relative to higher yielding bonds has increased substantially. This is both as a result of low, or negative, yields and reduced liquidity resulting from central bank asset purchases. These factors are offsetting the traditional “flight to quality” effect.

Last Friday, government bond yields increased around the world amid concerns about Fed tightening later this month – or later this year. The table below shows the change in 10yr to 30yrs Gilt yields together with a selection of Sterling denominated corporate bonds. I have chosen to focus on the UK because the BoE announced on August 4th that they intend to purchase £10bln of Investment Grade corporate bonds as part of their Asset Purchase Programme. Spreads between Corporates and Gilts narrowed since early August, although shorter maturities benefitted most.

Issuer Maturity Yield Gilt yield Spread over Gilts Corporate Change 7th to 12th Gilts change 7th to 12th
Barclays Bank Plc 2026 3.52 0.865 2.655 0.19 0.18
A2Dominion 2026 2.938 0.865 2.073 0.03 0.18
Sncf 2027 1.652 0.865 0.787 0.18 0.18
EDF 2027 1.9 0.865 1.035 0.19 0.18
National Grid Co Plc 2028 1.523 0.865 0.658 0.19 0.18
Italy (Republic of) 2028 2.891 0.865 2.026 0.17 0.18
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2028 1.187 0.865 0.322 0.18 0.18
EIB 2028 1.347 0.865 0.482 0.18 0.18
BT 2028 1.976 0.865 1.111 0.2 0.18
General Elec Cap Corp 2028 1.674 0.865 0.809 0.2 0.18
Severn Trent 2029 1.869 1.248 0.621 0.19 0.18
Tesco Plc 2029 4.476 1.248 3.228 0.2 0.18
Procter & Gamble Co 2030 1.683 1.248 0.435 0.2 0.18
RWE Finance Bv 2030 3.046 1.248 1.798 0.17 0.22
Citigroup Inc 2030 2.367 1.248 1.119 0.2 0.22
Wal-mart Stores 2030 1.825 1.248 0.577 0.2 0.22
EDF 2031 2.459 1.248 1.211 0.22 0.22
GE 2031 1.778 1.248 0.53 0.21 0.22
Enterprise Inns plc 2031 6.382 1.248 5.134 0.03 0.22
Prudential Finance Bv 2031 3.574 1.248 2.326 0.19 0.22
EIB 2032 1.407 1.248 0.159 0.2 0.22
Kreditanstalt fuer Wiederaufbau 2032 1.311 1.248 0.063 0.19 0.22
Vodafone Group PLC 2032 2.887 1.248 1.639 0.24 0.22
Tesco Plc 2033 4.824 1.248 3.576 0.21 0.22
GE 2033 1.88 1.248 0.632 0.21 0.22
Proctor & Gamble 2033 1.786 1.248 0.538 0.2 0.22
HSBC Bank Plc 2033 3.485 1.248 2.237 0.21 0.22
Wessex Water 2033 2.114 1.248 0.866 0.19 0.22
Nestle 2033 0.899 1.248 -0.349 0.16 0.22
Glaxo 2033 1.927 1.248 0.679 0.2 0.22
Segro PLC 2035 2.512 1.401 1.111 0.19 0.22
Walmart 2035 2.028 1.401 0.627 0.2 0.22
Aviva Plc 2036 3.979 1.401 2.578 0.18 0.22
General Electric 2037 2.325 1.401 0.924 0.23 0.22
Lcr Financial Plc 2038 1.762 1.401 0.361 0.2 0.22
EIB 2039 1.64 1.401 0.239 0.2 0.22
Lloyds TSB 2040 2.693 1.495 1.198 0.2 0.22
GE 2040 2.114 1.495 0.619 0.2 0.22
Direct Line 2042 6.738 1.495 5.243 0.06 0.22
Barclays Bank Plc 2049 3.706 1.4 2.306 0.1 0.22

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

The spread between international issuers such as Nestle – which, being Swiss, trades at a discount to Gilts – narrowed, however, higher yielding names, such as Direct Line, did likewise.

For comparison the table below – using the issues in bold from the table above – shows the change between the 22nd and 23rd June – pre and post-Brexit:-

Maturity Gilts 22-6 Corporate 22-6 Gilts 23-6 Corporate 23-6 Issuer Spread 22-6 Spread 23-6 Spread change
10y 1.314 4.18 1.396 4.68 Barclays 2.866 3.284 0.418
15y 1.879 3.86 1.96 3.88 Vodafone 1.981 1.92 -0.061
20y 2.065 4.76 2.124 4.78 Aviva 2.695 2.656 -0.039
25y 2.137 3.42 2.195 3.43 Lloyds 1.283 1.235 -0.048
30y 2.149 4.21 2.229 4.23 Barclays 2.061 2.001 -0.06

Source: Fixed Income Investor, Investing.com

Apart from a sharp increase in the yield on the 10yr Barclays issue (the 30yr did not react in the same manner) the spread between Gilts and corporates narrowed over the Brexit debacle too. This might be because bid/offer spreads in the corporate market became excessively wide – Gilts would have become the only realistic means of hedging – but the closing prices of the corporate names should have reflected mid-market yields.

If the “safe-haven” of Gilts has lost its lustre where should one invest? With patience and in higher yielding bonds – is one answer. Here is another from Ben Lord of M&G’s Bond Vigilantes – The BoE and ECB render the US bond market the only game in town:-

…The ultra-long conventional gilt has returned a staggering 52% this year. Since the result of the referendum became clear, the bond’s price has increased by 20%, and in the couple of weeks since Mark Carney announced the Bank of England’s stimulus package, the bond’s price has risen by a further 13%.

…the 2068 index-linked gilt, which has seen its price rise by 57% year-to-date, by 35% since the vote to exit Europe, and by 18% since further quantitative easing was announced by the central bank. Interestingly, too, the superior price action of the index-linked bond has occurred not as a result of rising inflation or expectations of inflation; instead it has been in spite of significantly falling inflation expectations so far this year. The driver of the outperformance is solely due to the much longer duration of the linker. Its duration is 19 years longer than the nominal 2068 gilt, by virtue of its much lower coupon!

When you buy a corporate bond you don’t just buy exposure to government bond yields, you also buy exposure to credit risk, reflected in the credit spread. The sterling investment grade sector has a duration of almost 10 years, so you are taking exposure to the 10 year gilt, which has a yield today of circa 0.5%. If we divide the yield by the bond’s duration, we get a breakeven yield number, or the yield rise that an investor can tolerate before they would be better off in cash. At the moment, as set out above, the yield rise that an investor in a 10 year gilt (with 9 year’s duration) can tolerate is around 6 basis points (0.5% / 9 years duration). Given that gilt yields are at all-time lows, so is the yield rise an investor can take before they would be better off in cash.

We can perform the same analysis on credit spreads: if the average credit spread for sterling investment grade credit is 200 basis points and the average duration of the market is 10 years, then an investor can tolerate spread widening of 20 basis points before they would be better off in cash. When we combine both of these breakeven figures, we have the yield rise, in basis points, that an investor in the average corporate bond or index can take before they should have been in cash.

With very low gilt yields and credit spreads that are being supported by coming central bank buying, accommodative policy and low defaults, and a benign consumption environment, it is no surprise that corporate bond yield breakevens are at the lowest level we have gathered data for. It is for these same reasons that the typical in-built hedge characteristic of a corporate bond or fund is at such low levels. Traditionally, if the economy is strong then credit spreads tighten whilst government bond yields sell off, such as in 2006 and 2007. And if the economy enters recession, then credit spreads widen and risk free government bond yields rally, such as seen in 2008 and 2009.

With the Bank of England buying gilts and soon to start buying corporate bonds, with the aim of loosening financial conditions and providing a stimulus to the economy as we work through the uncertain Brexit process and outcome, low corporate bond breakevens are to be expected. But with Treasury yields at extreme high levels out of gilts, and with the Fed not buying government bonds or corporate bonds at the moment, my focus is firmly on the attractive relative valuation of the US corporate bond market.

The table below shows a small subset of liquid US corporate bonds, showing the yield change between the 7th and 12th September:-

Issuer Issue Yield Maturity Change 7th to 12th Spread Rating
Home Depot HD 2.125 9/15/26 c26 2.388 10y 0.17 0.72 A2
Toronto Dominion TD 3.625 9/15/31 c 3.605 15y 0.04 1.93 A3
Oracle ORCL 4.000 7/15/46 c46 3.927 20y 0.14 1.54 A1
Microsoft MSFT 3.700 8/8/46 c46 3.712 20y 0.13 1.32 Aaa
Southern Company SO 3.950 10/1/46 c46 3.973 20y 0.18 1.58 Baa2
Home Depot HD 3.500 9/15/56 c56 3.705 20y 0.19 1.31 A2
US Treasury US10yr 1.67 10y 0.13 N/A AAA
US Treasury US30y 2.39 30y 0.16 N/A AAA

Source: Market Axess, Investing.com

Except for Canadian issuer Toronto Dominion, yields moved broadly in tandem with the T-Bond market. The spread between US corporates and T-Bonds may well narrow once the Fed gains a mandate to buy corporate securities, but, should Fed negotiations with Congress prove protracted, the cost of FX hedging may negate much of the benefit for UK or European investors.

What is apparent, is that the “flight to quality” effect is diminished even in the more liquid and higher yielding US market.

The total market capitalisation of the UK corporate bond market is relatively small at £285bln, the US market is around $4.5trln and Europe is between the two at Eur1.5trln. The European Central Bank (ECB) began its Corporate Sector Purchase Programme (CSPP) earlier this summer but delegated the responsibility to the individual National Banks.

Between 8th June and 15th July Europe’s central banks purchased Eur10.43bln across 458 issues. The average position was Eur22.8mln but details of actual holdings are undisclosed. They bought 12 issues of Deutsche Bahn (DBHN) 11 of Telefonica (TEF) and 10 issues of BMW (BMW) but total exposures are unknown. However, as the Bond Vigilantes -Which corporate bonds has the ECB been buying? point out, around 36% of all bonds eligible for the CSPP were trading with negative yields. This was in mid-July, since then 10y Bunds have fallen from -012% to, a stellar, +0.3%, whilst Europe’s central banks have acquired a further Eur6.71bln of corporates in August, taking the mark-to-market total to Eur19.92bln. The chart below shows the breakdown of purchases by country and industry sector at the 18th July:-


Source: M&G Investments, ECB, Bloomberg

Here is the BIS data for total outstanding financial and non-financial debt as at the end of 2015:-

Country US$ Blns
France 2053
Spain 1822
Netherlands 1635
Germany 1541
Italy 1023
Luxembourg 858
Denmark 586

Source: BIS

In terms of CSPP holdings, Germany appears over-represented, Spain and the Netherlands under-represented. The “devil”, as they say, is in the “detail” – and a detailed breakdown by issuer, issue and size of holding, has not been published. The limited information is certainly insufficient for traders to draw any clear conclusions about which issues to buy or sell. As Wolfgang Bauer, the author of the M&G article, concludes:-

But as tempting as it may be to draw conclusions regarding over- and underweights and thus to anticipate the ECB’s future buying activity, we have to acknowledge that we are simply lacking data. Trying to “front run” the ECB is therefore a highly difficult, if not impossible task.

 Conclusions and investment opportunities

Back in May the Wall Street Journal published the table below, showing the change in the portfolio mix required to maintain a 7.5% return between 1995 and 2015:-

Source: Wall Street Journal, Callan Associates

The risk metric they employ is volatility, which in turn is derived from the daily mark-to-market price. Private Equity and Real-Estate come out well on this measure but are demonstrably less liquid. However, this table also misses the point made at the beginning of this letter – that “risk-free” assets are encumbered with much higher “capital” risk in a ZIRP to NIRP world. The lower level of volatility associated with bond markets disguises an asymmetric downside risk in the event of yield “normalisation”.


Corporates with strong cash flows and rising earnings are incentivised to issue debt either for investment or to buy back their own stock; thankfully, not all corporates and leveraging their balance sheets. Dividend yields are around the highest they have been this century:-


Source: Multpl.com

Meanwhile US Treasury Bond yields hit their lowest ever in July. Below is a sample of just a few higher yielding S&P500 stocks:-

Stock Ticker Price P/E Beta EPS DPS Payout Ratio Yield
At&t T 39.97 17.3 0.56 2.3 1.92 83 4.72
Target TGT 68.94 12.8 0.35 5.4 2.4 44 3.46
Coca-cola KO 42.28 24.3 0.73 1.7 1.4 80 3.24
Mcdonalds MCD 114.73 22.1 0.61 5.2 3.56 69 3.07
Procter & Gamble PG 87.05 23.6 0.66 3.7 2.68 73 3.03
Kimberly-clark KMB 122.39 22.8 0.61 5.4 3.68 68 2.98
Pepsico PEP 104.59 29.5 0.61 3.6 3.01 85 2.84
Wal-mart Stores WMT 71.46 15.4 0.4 4.6 2 43 2.78
Johnson & Johnson JNJ 117.61 22.1 0.43 5.3 3.2 60 2.69

Source: TopYield.nl

The average beta of the names above is 0.55 – given that the S&P500 has an historic volatility of around 15%, this portfolio would have a volatility of 8.25% and an average dividend yield of 3.2%. This is not a recommendation to buy an equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, merely an observation about the attractiveness of returns from dividends.

Government bonds offer little or no return if held to maturity – it is a traders market. For as long as central banks keep buying, bond prices will be supported, but, since the velocity of the circulation of money keeps falling, central banks are likely to adopt more unconventional policies in an attempt to transmit stimulus to the real economy. If the BoJ, BoE and ECB are any guide, this will lead them (Fed included) to increase purchases of corporate bonds and even common stock.

Bond bear-market?

Predicting the end of the bond bull-market is not my intention, but if central banks should fail in their unconventional attempts at stimulus, or if their mandates are withdrawn, what has gone up the most (government bonds) is likely to fall farthest. At some point, the value of owning “risk-free” assets will reassert itself, but I do not think a 1% rise in yields will be sufficient. High yielding stocks from companies with good dividend cover, low betas and solid cash flows, will weather the coming storm. These stocks may suffer substantial corrections, but their businesses will remain intact. When the bond bubble finally bursts “risky” assets may be safer than conventional wisdom suggests. The breakdown in the “flight to quality” effect is just one more indicator that the rules of engagement are changing.

Drowning in debt


Macro Letter – No 60 – 02-09-2016

Drowning in debt

  • Central Banks are moving from quantitative to qualitative easing
  • The spread between Investment Grade and Government bond yields is narrowing
  • Issuing corporate debt rather than equity has never been so attractive
  • Corporate leverage is rising, share buy-backs continue but investment remains weak

I was always

Far out at sea

And not waving

But drowning

Stevie Smith

During August the financial markets have been relatively quiet, however, the Bank of England (BoE) cut interest rates on 4th and added Investment Grade Corporate bonds to their Asset Purchase Programme. The following day Vodafone (VOD) issued a 40yr bond yielding 3% – a week earlier they had issued a 33yr bond yielding 3.4%.

Meanwhile, at Jackson Hole the Kansas City Federal Reserve Symposium discussed a paper by Professor Jeremy Stein – a member Federal Reserve board member between 2012 and 2014 – and two other Harvard professors entitled The Federal Reserve Balance Sheet as a Financial Stability Tool – in which the authors argue that the Fed should maintain its balance sheet at around $4.5trln but that it “should use its balance sheet to lean against private-sector maturity transformation.” In layman’s terms this is a “call to arms” encouraging the Fed to seek approval from the US government to allow the purchase a much wider range of corporate securities. It would appear that the limits of central bank omnipotence have yet to be reached. The Bank of Japan has already begun to discover the unforeseen effect that negative interest rate policy has on the velocity of the circulation of money – it collapses. Now central bankers, who’s credibility has begun to be questioned in some quarters of late, are considering the wider use of “qualitative” measures.

As Bastiat has taught us, that which is seen from these policies is a reduction in the cost of borrowing for “investment grade” corporations. What is not seen, so clearly, is the incentive corporates have to borrow, not to invest, but to buy back their own stock. Perhaps I am being unfair, but, in a world which is drowning in debt, central bankers seem to think that the over-indebted are not “drowning” but “waving”.

One of the most cherished ideas, promulgated upon an unsuspecting world, is the concept of using fiscal and monetary stimulus to offset cyclical economic downturns. The aim of these “popular” policies is to soften the blow of economic slowdowns – all highly laudable provided the “punch bowl” is withdrawn during the cyclical recovery.

So much for business cycles: but what about the impact these policies may have on structural changes in economic performance relating to supply and demand for factors of production, such as labour, fixed assets or basic materials? I’m thinking here about the impact, especially, of technology and demographics.

Firstly, the cyclical stimulus extended during the downturn is seldom withdrawn during the upturn and secondly, long term structural changes in economies are seldom considered by governments, since these changes evolve over decades or generations, rather than the span of a single parliament. This is an essential weakness in the democratic process which has stifled economic growth for centuries. This excellent paper from Carmen M. Reinhart, Vincent R. Reinhart, and Kenneth S. Rogoff – The Journal of Economic Perspectives – Volume 26 – No 3 – Summer 2012 – Public Debt Overhangs: Advanced Economy Episodes Since 1800 makes this weakness abundantly clear.

The authors expand on their earlier research, this time looking at the impact of excessive public debt overhang on economic growth. They take as their “line in the sand” the point where the government debt to nominal GDP ratio remains above 90% for more than five years. They identify 26 episodes, 20 of which lasted more than a decade – the average was 23 years. It is worth noting that more than one third of these episodes occurred without interest rates rising above normal levels.

In 23 of the 26 episodes, over the 211 year sample, the pace of economic growth was lowered from 3.5% to 2.3% – in other words GDP was reduced by roughly one third. The long term secular impact of high debt and lower growth needs to be weighed against the short-term benefits of Keynesian stimulus. A lowering of the GDP growth rate of 1.2% for 23 years is equivalent to a 24.25% reduction in the potential size of the economy at the end of the debt overhang period – a tall price for any economy to pay.

The authors briefly examine the other types of outstanding debt, in order to arrive at what they dub “the quadruple debt overhang problem”, namely, private debt, external debt (and its associated currency risks) and the “actuarial” debt implicit in “unfunded” pension schemes and medical insurance programmes. This data is hard to untangle but the authors state:-

…the overall magnitude of the debt burdens facing the advanced economies as a group is in many dimensions without precedent. The interaction between the different types of debt overhang is extremely complex and poorly understood, but it is surely of great potential importance.

The 22 developed economies in their sample are now burdened with debt to GDP ratios above the levels seen in the aftermath of WWII. Their 48 emerging market counterparts had their epiphany in the debt crisis of the mid 1980’s, since when they have assumed a certain sobriety of character. This shows up even more glaringly in the divergence since 1986 in the public, plus private, external debt. In developed countries it has risen from around 75% of GDP to more than 250% whilst emerging economies external debt has fallen from a broadly similar 75% to less than 50% today. Governments, often bailout private external debt holders in order to protect the stability of their currencies.

Private domestic credit is another measure of total indebtedness which the authors analyse. For the 48 emerging economies this has remained constant at around 40% of GDP since the mid-1980s whilst in the developed 22 it has risen from 50% in the 1950’s to above 150% today. Since the bursting of the technology stock bubble in 2000 this trend has accelerated but the authors point out that these increases are often caused by cross border capital inflows.

The rise in the debt to GDP ratio may come from a slowing in growth rather than an increase in government debt but the correlation between rising debt and slowing GDP rises dramatically as the ratio exceeds 90%.

The authors draw the following conclusions:-

…First, once a public debt overhang has lasted five years, it is likely to last 10 years or much more (unless the debt was caused by a war that ends).

…it is quite possible to have a “no drama” public debt overhang, which doesn’t involve a rise in real interest rates or a financial crisis. Indeed, in 11 of our 26 public debt overhang episodes, real interest rates were on average comparable, or lower, than at other times.

…Another line of reasoning for dismissing concerns about public debt overhangs is the view that causality mostly runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues runs from growth to debt. However, we discussed a body of evidence which argues that causality does indeed run from the public debt overhang to slower growth. There are counterexamples where a public debt overhang was accompanied by rapid growth, like the immediate period after World War II for the United States and United Kingdom, but these exceptions to the typical pattern do not seem to be the most relevant parallels for the modern world economy.

…The pathway to containing and reducing public debt will require a change that is sustained over the middle and the long term. However, the evidence, as we read it, casts doubt on the view that soaring government debt does not matter when markets (and official players, notably central banks) seem willing to absorb it at low interest rates—as is the case for now.

The Methadone of the Markets

The bull market in fixed income securities began in the early 1980’s. The price of “risk free” assets has always had a significant influence on the valuation of equities but, since the advent of quantitative easing, the principle driver of performance has become the level of interest rates. As the yield on fixed income securities has inexorably declined the spread between the dividend and bond yield has returned to positive territory after many years of inversion.

Companies with growing earnings from their operations can finance more cheaply than at any time in history. Provided they can sustain their growth, their bonds should, theoretically, begin to trade at a discount to government bonds. This would probably have happened before now had the central banks not embarked on quantitative easing revolving around the purchase of government bonds at already artificially inflated prices. The rules on capital weighting which favour “risk free” assets and regulations requiring pension funds and other financial institutions to hold minimum levels of “risk free” assets has further distorted the marketplace.

The unfunded government pension schemes of developed nations are at the mercy of the demographic headwind of a smaller working age population supporting a growing legion of retirees. Added to which, breakthroughs in medical science suggest that actuarial expectations of life expectancy may once again be underestimated.

Ways out of debt

There are a number of solutions other than fiscal austerity. For example, increasing the pensionable age steadily towards the average life expectancy. This may sound extreme but in January 1909, when the pension was first introduced in the UK, the pensionable age was 70 years and life expectancy was 50 years for men and 53.5 for women. The latest ONS data shows male life expectancy at 79 years whilst for females it is 82.8 years. The pensionable age for women has now risen to 63 years and will be brought in line with men (65 years) by 2018. There is still a long way to go, by 2030 the NHS estimate the male average will be 85.7 years, with females living an average of 87.6 years. Meanwhile the pensionable age will reach 68 years by 2028. In other words, the current, deeply unpopular, proposed increase in the pensionable age is barely keeping pace with the projected increase in life expectancy.

Another solution which would help to reduce the level of public debt is a structural policy of capping government spending at less than 40% of GDP. This could be relaxed to less than 50% during recessions as a temporary counter-cyclical measure. UK GDP averaged 2.47% since 1953 – if government spending only increased slightly less than 1% per annum we could steadily reduce the public sector debt burden towards a manageable 30% level over the next 40 years, after all, as recently as 2005 the ratio of government debt to GDP was at 38%. The chart below of the Rahn Curve shows the optimal ratio of government debt to GDP. Once government spending exceeds 15% it acts as a drag on the potential growth of an economy:-


Source: The Heritage Foundation, Peter Brimelow

The interest paid on corporate debt and bank loans is tax deductible which creates an incentive to issue debt rather than equity. It is difficult to change this situation but mandating that equity may only be retired from after-tax profits would encourage leverage for investment purposes rather than to artificially enhance the return on equity. The chart below shows the decline in net domestic investment in the US despite historically low interest rates:-

fredgraph (1)

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis

The next chart shows the level of share buybacks and the performance of the S&P500:-


Source: Dent Research, S&P, Haver Analytics, Barclays Research, Business Insider

Household debt is predominantly in the form of mortgages. In most developed countries a shortage of housing stock, due to planning restrictions, has encouraged individuals to speculate in the real estate market. In fact BoE Chief Economist Andy Haldane was quoted in The Sunday Times – Property is a better bet than pensions, says gold-plated Bank guru stating that pensions were complex and housing was a better investment:-

As long as we continue not to build anything like as many houses in this country as we need to … we will see what we’ve had for the better part of a generation, which is house prices relentlessly heading north.

The solution is planning reform. This will reduce house price inflation but it will not reduce the level of mortgage debt, however, once housing ceases to be a “one way bet” the attraction of leveraged speculation in property will diminish.

Conclusions and Investment Opportunities

The underlying problem which caused the great recession of 2009/2010 was excessive debt. The policy response has been to throw petrol on the fire. The first phase of unconventional monetary policy – reducing official interest rates towards zero – has more or less run its course. The next phase – qualitative easing – is now under way. This will start with corporate bonds and proceed to other securities ending up with common stock. Credit spreads will continue to narrow even if government bond yields rise. There will, of course, be episodes of panic when “safe haven” government bonds outperform but this will be temporary and the spread widening will present a buying opportunity.

The UK Investment Grade bond market is relatively small at £285bln and liquidity is therefore less robust than for Euro or US$ denominated issues but there is a £10bln “put” beneath the market. Other initiatives will be forthcoming from the central banks. Their actions will continue to be the dominant factor influencing asset prices in general.

Will Japan be the first to test the limits of quantitative easing?


Macro Letter – No 57 – 24-06-2016

Will Japan be the first to test the limits of quantitative easing?

  • The Bank of Japan made its first provision against losses from QQE
  • As the JPY has strengthened the Nikkei 225 has fallen more than 16% YTD
  • Domestic institutions have been switching from bonds to stocks
  • Japanese share buy backs are on the rise

The Japanese stock market peaked in December 1989, marking the end of a period of economic expansion which briefly saw Japan eclipse the USA to become the world’s largest economy. Since its zenith, Japan has struggled. I wrote about this topic, in relation to the economic reform package dubbed Abenomics, in my first Macro Letter – Japan: the coming rise back in December 2013:-

As the US withdrew from Japan the political landscape became dominated by the LDP who were elected in 1955 and remained in power until 1993; they remain the incumbent and most powerful party in the Diet to this day. Under the LDP a virtuous triangle emerged between the Kieretsu (big business) the bureaucracy and the LDP. Brian Reading (Lombard Street Research) wrote an excellent, and impeccably timed, book entitled Japan: The Coming Collapse in 1989. By this time the virtuous triangle had become, what he coined the “Iron Triangle”.

Nearly twenty five years after the publication of Brian’s book, the” Iron Triangle” is weaker but alas unbroken. However, the election of Shinzo Abe, with his plan for competitive devaluation, fiscal stimulus and structural reform has given the electorate hope. 

In the last two years Abenomics has delivered some transitory benefits but, as this Japan Forum on International Relations – No. 101: Has Abenomics Lost Its Initial Objective? describes, it may have lost its way:-

The key objective of Abenomics is a departure from 20 year deflation. For this purpose, the Bank of Japan supplied a huge amount of base money to cause inflation, and carried out quantitative and qualitative monetary easing so that consumers and businesses have inflationary mindsets. This “first arrow” of Abenomics was successful to boost corporate profits and raising stock prices by devaluing the exchange rate, but falling oil price makes it unlikely to achieve a 2% inflation rate, despite BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda’s dedicated effort. The quantitative and qualitative monetary easing will not accomplish the core objective.

Another reason for such a huge amount of base money supply is to expand export through currency depreciation and to stimulate economic growth, but that has neither boosted export nor contributed to economic growth. We cannot dismiss world economic downturn, notably in China, but actually, Japanese big companies that lead national export, have shifted their business bases overseas during the last era of strong yen. From this point of view, I suspect that the Japanese government overlooked such structural changes that deterred export growth, even if the yen was devalued. The “second arrow” is flexible fiscal expenditure to support the economy, and the result of which has revealed that it is virtually impossible to keep the promise to the global community to achieve the equilibrium of the primary balance in 2020.

In view of the above changes, I would like to lay my hopes on the “third arrow” of economic growth strategy. The growth strategy has been announced three times up to now, in 2013, 2014, and 2015, respectively. The strategy in 2013 launched three action plans, but they were insufficient. The 2014 strategy was highly evaluated internationally, as it actively involved in the reform of basic nature of the Japanese economy, such as capital market reform, agricultural reform, and labor reform. But it takes ten to twenty years for a structural reform like this to work. Meanwhile, it is quite difficult to understand the growth strategy approved by the cabinet in June 2015. Frankly, this is empty and the quality of it has become even poorer. Abenomics was heavily dependent on monetary policy, and did not tackle long term issues so much, such as social security and regional development. However, people increasingly worry about dire prospects of long term problems like 2 population decrease, aging, and so forth, while the administration responds to such trends with mere slogans like “regional revitalization” and “dynamic engagement of all citizens”. But it is quite unlikely that these “policies” will really revitalize the region, or promote dynamic engagement by the people.

The Bank of Japan (BoJ) has held up its side of the bargain but the “Third Arrow” of structural reform seems to be stuck in the quiver. It is prudent, in light of this policy failure, for the BoJ to look ahead to the time when they are required by the government or forced by the markets, to unwind QQE. Last month they began that process.

As this article from the Nikkei Asian Review – BOJ seen preparing for exit from easing with reserves  explains, the BoJ has made a provision of JPY 450bln for the year ending March 2016 against potential capital losses which might be incurred upon liquidation of their JGB holdings. This is the first provision of its kind and substantially reduces the percentage of seigniorage profits remitted to the Japanese government.  The level of remittances has been falling –from JPY 757bln in 2014 to JPY 425bln last year. As at the end of May 2016 the BoJ held JPY 319.5trln of JGBs – 36.6% of outstanding issuance. Japan Macro Advisors estimate this will reach 49.3% by the end of 2017. This year’s provision, whilst prudent, is a drop in the ocean. Under the current Quantitative and Qualitative Easing (QQE) programme they are obligated to purchase JPY 80tln per annum. The Association of Japanese Institutes of Strategic Studies – The Fiscal Costs of Unconventional Monetary Policy put it like this:-

It is quite likely that quantitative easing through high-volume purchases of long-term bonds will cause the Bank of Japan enormous losses over the medium to long term, imposing burdens on taxpayers both directly and indirectly. If the current quantitative easing continues, the Bank of Japan may find itself in the near future unable to cover such losses even using all of its seigniorage profits.

…The BoJ’s seigniorage will be roughly equivalent in present value to the balance of banknotes issued. If the BoJ procures funds by issuing cash at a zero interest rate and purchases JGBs, the present discounted value of the principal and interest earned by the BoJ from its JGBs will equal the balance of banknotes. If interest rates are about 2%, Japan’s demand for banknotes will fall from 19% of GDP at present to less than 10% of GDP, and the BoJ’s aforementioned losses would even exceed the present value of its seigniorage.

Here is an extract from the BoJ’s 16th June Statement on Monetary Policy the emphasis is mine:-

Quantity Dimension: The guideline for money market operations

The Bank decided, by an 8-1 majority vote, to set the following guideline for money market operations for the intermeeting period:[Note 1]

The Bank of Japan will conduct money market operations so that the monetary base will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen.

Quality Dimension: The guidelines for asset purchases

With regard to the asset purchases, the Bank decided, by an 8-1 majority vote, to set the following guidelines:[Note 1]

a) The Bank will purchase Japanese government bonds (JGBs) so that their amount outstanding will increase at an annual pace of about 80 trillion yen. With a view to encouraging a decline in interest rates across the entire yield curve, the Bank will conduct purchases in a flexible manner in accordance with financial market conditions. The average remaining maturity of the Bank’s JGB purchases will be about 7-12 years.

b) The Bank will purchase exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and Japan real estate investment trusts (J-REITs) so that their amounts outstanding will increase at annual paces of about 3.3 trillion yen1 and about 90 billion yen, respectively.

c) As for CP and corporate bonds, the Bank will maintain their amounts outstanding at about 2.2 trillion yen and about 3.2 trillion yen, respectively.

Interest-Rate Dimension: The policy rate

The Bank decided, by a 7-2 majority vote, to continue applying a negative interest rate of minus 0.1 percent to the Policy-Rate Balances in current accounts held by financial institutions at the Bank.[Note 2]

[Note 1] Voting for the action: Mr. H. Kuroda, Mr. K. Iwata, Mr. H. Nakaso, Mr. K. Ishida, Mr. T. Sato, Mr. Y. Harada, Mr. Y. Funo, and Mr. M. Sakurai. Voting against the action: Mr. T. Kiuchi. Mr. T. Kiuchi proposed that the Bank conduct money market operations and asset purchases so that the monetary base and the amount outstanding of its JGB holdings increase at an annual pace of about 45 trillion yen, respectively. The proposal was defeated by a majority vote.

[Note 2] Voting for the action: Mr. H. Kuroda, Mr. K. Iwata, Mr. H. Nakaso, Mr. K. Ishida, Mr. Y. Harada, Mr. Y. Funo, and Mr. M. Sakurai. Voting against the action: Mr. T. Sato and Mr. T. Kiuchi. Mr. T. Sato and Mr. T. Kiuchi dissented considering that an interest rate of 0.1 percent should be applied to current account balances excluding the amount outstanding of the required reserves held by financial institutions at the Bank, because negative interest rates would impair the functioning of financial markets and financial intermediation as well as the stability of the JGB market.

The decision by the BoJ not to increase QQE at its last two meetings has surprised the markets and lead to a further strengthening of the JPY. Governor Kuroda, gave a speech Keio University on June 20thOvercoming Deflation: Theory and Practice in which he described the history of BoJ policy in its attempts to stimulate the Japanese economy:-

As mentioned, the aim of QQE is to overcome the prolonged deflation that has gripped Japan. Even if this deflation has been mild, the fact that it has continued for more than 15 years means that its cumulative costs have been extremely large. Looked at in terms of the price level, an annual inflation rate of minus 0.3 percent over a period of 15 years implies that the price level will fall by around 5 percent, but an annual inflation rate of 2 percent over a period of 15 years means that the price level will rise by around 35 percent.

It is worth noting that the UK and USA was subject to a long period of deflation during the “Great Depression” between 1873 and 1896 (approximately -2% per annum) by this comparison Japan’s experience has been very mild indeed. The BoJ has a 2% inflation target, however, so we should anticipate more QQE. Kuroda-san, who has previously stated that the effect of NIRP will take time to feed through and that NIRP may be increased from -0.1% to -0.5%, gave no indication as to what the BoJ may do next; although he did say that Japan provides an interesting case study for academia.

On June 8th Professor George Selgin delivered the Annual IEA Hayek Memorial Lecture – Price Stability and Financial Stability without Central Banks – lessons from the past for the future in which he discussed good and bad deflation together with “Free Banking” – the concept of financial stability without central banks (if you have 45 minutes and enjoy economic history, the whole speech it is well worthwhile). With regard to the current situation in Japan – and elsewhere – he highlights the different between good deflation which is driven by supply expansion and bad deflation which is the result of demand shrinkage. Selgin also goes on to allude to Hayek’s view that that stability of spending should be the objective of monetary policy rather than the stability of prices – akin to what Market Monetarists dub the stability of monetary velocity.

Japan’s monetary base has expanded by 170% since March 2013 but at the same time the money multiplier – Money Stock/BoJ Monetary Base – has declined from 8.27 times (April 2013) to 3.35 times (March 2016). Lending market growth was at its weakest for three years in March (+2%) principally due to household hoarding.

Bloomberg - Japan Money Mult and Money base

Source: Bloomberg, BoJ

Since the announcement of Negative Interest Rate Policy (NIRP) in January the sale of safes for domestic residences has increased dramatically. Whilst I have not found evidence from Japan, this article from Bloomberg – Cash in Vaults Tested by Munich Re Amid ECB’s Negative Rates reports that MunichRE – the world’s second largest reinsurer – is setting a worrying precedent, it’s one thing when individuals hoard paper money but, when financial institutions follow suit, monetary velocity is liable to plummet. I suspect institutions in Switzerland and Japan are also assessing the merits of stuffing their proverbial mattresses with fiat money.

The chart below reveals that declining monetary velocity is not exclusively a Japanese phenomenon:-

Monetary Velocity - CLSA

Source: CLSA, CEIC

The Yotai Gap – the difference between bank deposits and loans – is another measure of household hoarding. It widened to JPY 207.6trln in March, close to its record high of JPY 209.9trln in May 2015. The unintended consequences of NIRP is an increase in demand for paper money and a reduction of demand for retail loans even as interest rates decline.

Japanese industry looks little better than the household sector, as this excellent article from Alhambra Investment Partners – It’s Not Stupidity, It Is Apathy (For Now) explains:-

Japanese industry has not gained anything for the surrender of Japanese households, with industrial production falling 3.5% in April, the 18th time in the past the 22 months. IP in April 2016 was slightly less than the production level in April 2013 when QQE began. Worse, IP is still 3.4% below April 2012, which further suggests both continued economic decline and a distinct lack of any effect from all the “stimulus.”

Barron’s – Unintended Consequences of NIRP listed the following additional effects:-

1) compress net interest margins and bank profits;
2) damage consumer and business confidence;
3) provide little incentive for business invest in capital rather than buy back stock;
4) hurt savers;
5) makes active management more difficult by dampening dispersion;
6) increase demand for gold and other hard assets; and,
7) likely widen the wealth gap

The BoJ can continue to buy JGBs, Commercial Paper, Corporate Bonds, ETFs and, once these avenues have been exhausted, move on to the purchase of common stocks and commercial loans. It can nationalise the stock market and circumvent the banking system in order to provide liquidity to end users or even consumers. At what point will the markets realise that they have been pushing on a string for decades? I suspect, not yet, but a dénouement, an epiphany, draws near.

Markets since the announcement of NIRP

Since the BoJ NIRP announcement at the end of January, the JPY has strengthened by around 14%. The five year chart below shows the degree to which the hopes for the first arrow of Abenomics have been dashed:-

japan-currency 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

Currency weakness has put pressure on stocks. International investors sold around JPY 5trln during in a 13 week selling binge to the beginning of April:-

japan-stock-market 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

The Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF) and other domestic institutions took up the slack – the GPIF has moved from 12% to 23% equities since October 2014 – here is the 31st December breakdown of the asset mix for the JPY 140trln fund:-

31-12-15 % Allocation Policy Target Permitted Deviation
Domestic Bonds 37.76 35 10
Domestic Equity 23.35 25 9
International Bonds 13.5 15 4
International Equities 22.82 25 8
Short term assets 2.57

Source: GPIF

In theory the GPIF could buy another JPY 15.5trln of domestic stocks and reduce its holdings of JGBs by nearly JPY 18trln. I expect other Japanese pension funds and Trust Banks to follow the lead of the GPIF. Domestic demand for stocks is likely to continue.

As I mentioned earlier, JGBs are being steadily accumulated by the BoJ even as the GPIF and other institutions switch to equities. This is the five year yield chart for the 10 year maturity:-

japan-government-bond-yield 5yr

Source: Trading Economics

JGBs made new all-time lows earlier this month, with maturities out as far as 15 years turning negative, amid international concerns about the potential impact of Brexit.

Looking more closely at Japanese stocks, non-financial corporations have followed the lead of the eponymous Mrs Watanabe, accumulating an historically high cash pile. Barron’s – Abenomics Watch: Japan’s Corporates Are Hoarding Cash, Too takes up the story:-

During the three years of Abenomics between 2013 and 2015, Japan’s non-financial corporate sector increased its holding of cash and deposits by roughly 30 trillion yen, or 6% of GDP. This amount is equivalent to about 35% of retained earnings, estimates Credit Suisse.

This amount is high by historical standards. During the previous economic upswing between the end of 2002 and the beginning of 2008, Japan’s corporations held only 11.5% of their retained earnings.

So why are Japanese companies hoarding cash?

One explanation is larger intangible assets. It is easy for companies to put up their fixed assets as collateral for loans, but how should banks value intangible assets such as intellectual property? Cash would be a viable collateral option. However, Credit Suisse finds that there is not much correlation between cash and intangible asset positions. The ratio of cash to intangible fixed assets investments has moved broadly between 8.6 years and 11.6 years over the two decades since 1994.

A second explanation is lax corporate governance, which Abe has been trying to fix. Are Japanese companies only paying him lip service?

A third explanation is increasing pension liabilities. As Japanese society ages, companies feel compelled to hoard more cash to pay off employees who are due to retire in the coming years. Encouraging women to enter the labor force is a key component of Abenomics’ Third Arrow. He has not gone very far.

Last, perhaps Japanese companies are feeling uncertain about the future? Toyota Motor, for instance, drastically changed its yen assumption from 120 to 105 in the new fiscal year. Companies hoard more cash when they don’t know what’s going to happen.

According to the latest flow of funds data from the BoJ – corporate cash was estimated to be JPY 246trln in Q1 2016 – the 29th consecutive quarterly increase, whilst household assets rose to JPY 902trln the highest on record and the 36th quarterly increase in a row. A nine year trend.

Another trend which has been evident in Japan – and elsewhere – is an increase in share buybacks. The chart below tells the story since 2012:-

Topix Share buy backs

Source: FT, Goldman Sachs

Compared to the level of share buy backs seen in the US, Japanese activity is minimal, nonetheless the trend is growing and NIRP must assume some responsibility. Perhaps it was the precipitous decline in capital expenditure, which prompted the BoJ to introduce NIRP. The chart below is taken from the December 2015 Tankan report:-


Source: Business Insider Australia, BoJ

In the March 2016 Tankan, the Business Conditions Diffusion Index remained generally positive but the decline of momentum is of concern:-

Dec-15 Mar-16 June-16(F/C)
Manufacturers 12 6 3
Non-Manufacturers 25 22 17
Manufacturers 5 5 -2
Non-Manufacturers 19 17 9

 Source; BoJ

I doubt capital expenditure will rebound while share buy backs appear safer to the executive officers of these companies. The Japanese stock market is also attractive by several valuation metrics. The table below compares the seven most liquid stock markets, as at 31st March, is sorted by the yield premium to 10 year government bonds (DY-10y):-

Country CAPE PE PC PB PS DY 10y DY-10y
Switzerland 20.3 22.5 13.9 2.3 1.8 3.50% -0.33% 3.83%
France 16 20.9 6.5 1.5 0.8 3.50% 0.41% 3.09%
Germany 16.8 19 8 1.6 0.7 2.90% 0.15% 2.75%
United Kingdom 12.7 35.4 12.8 1.8 1.1 4.00% 1.42% 2.58%
Italy 11.1 31.5 5 1.1 0.5 3.50% 1.23% 2.27%
Japan 22.7 15.3 7.9 1.1 0.7 2.20% -0.04% 2.24%
United States 24.6 19.9 11.6 2.8 1.8 2.10% 1.77% 0.33%

Source: StarCapital.de, Investing.com

For international allocators, the strength of the JPY has been a significant cushion this year, but, for the domestic investor, the Nikkei 225 is down 16.2% YTD. Technically the market is consolidating around the support region between 16,300 and 13,900. If it breaks lower we may see a return towards to 10,000 – 11,000 area. If it recovers, a push through 18,000 should see the market retest its highs. I believe the downside is supported by domestic demand for stocks as bond yields turn increasingly negative.

International investors will remain wary of the risks associated with the currency. Further BoJ largesse must be anticipated; that they have made a first provision against losses from the unwinding of QQE is but a warning shot across the bows of the ministry of finance. As I suggested in Macro Letter – No 49 – 12-02-2016 Why did Japanese NIRP cause such surprise in the currency market and is it more dangerous? a currency hedged equity investment is worth considering. Prime Minister Abe, who began campaigning, this week, for the upper house elections on July 10th, has promised to boost the economy if he wins a majority of the 121 seats being contested. The monetary experiment looks set to continue but the BoJ may be the first central bank to discover the limits of largesse.


Why did Japanese NIRP cause such surprise in the currency market and is it more dangerous?


Macro Letter – No 49 – 12-02-2016

Why did Japanese NIRP cause such surprise in the currency market and is it more dangerous?

  • The Bank of Japan announcement of NIRP sent shock waves through currency markets
  • The Yen has strengthened on capital repatriation since the BoJ move
  • JGB 10 year yields turned negative this week
  • Longer-term the Yen will weaken

At the end of January the Bank of Japan (BoJ) shocked the financial markets by announcing that they would allow Japanese interest rates to become negative for the first time. USDJYP reacted with an abrupt rise from 118 to 121 which was completely reversed a global stock markets declined USDJYP is currently at 112.06 (11-02-2016). The three year chart below shows the extent of the move:-


Source: Big Charts

Here is an extract from the BOJ Announcement:-

The Introduction of “Quantitative and Qualitative Monetary Easing (QQE) with a Negative Interest Rate” 

The Bank will apply a negative interest rate of minus 0.1 percent to current accounts that financial institutions hold at the Bank. It will cut the interest rate further into negative territory if judged as necessary.

The Bank will introduce a multiple-tier system which some central banks in Europe (e.g. the Swiss National Bank) have put in place. Specifically, it will adopt a three-tier system in which the outstanding balance of each financial institution’s current account at the Bank will be divided into three tiers, to each of which a positive interest rate, a zero interest rate, or a negative interest rate will be applied, respectively.

“QQE with a Negative Interest Rate” is designed to enable the Bank to pursue additional monetary easing in terms of three dimensions, combining a negative interest rate with quantity and quality.

The Bank will lower the short end of the yield curve and will exert further downward pressure on interest rates across the entire yield curve through a combination of a negative interest rate and large-scale purchases of JGBs.

The Bank will achieve the price stability target of 2 percent at the earliest possible time by making full use of possible measures in terms of the three dimensions.

In answer to the title question, part of the surprise was due to BoJ Governor Kuroda-san’s volte face. Prior to his departure for Davos, he had ruled out the adoption of negative interest rate policy (NIRP) upon his return the BoJ announced the NIRP “out of the blue”.

I was also surprised, not that the BoJ had adopted NIRP, but that it had taken so long for them to “fall on their sword”. After all, they have been struggling with deflation and low bond yields for more than a decade and embarked on QQE ahead of their collaborators at the ECB, SNB, Riksbank and Danmarks Bank. The Economist – Negative Creep – makes some important observations:-

Almost a quarter of the world’s GDP now comes from countries with negative rates.

Not so long ago it was widely thought that, if interest rates went below zero, banks and their depositors would simply switch to cash, which pays no interest but doesn’t charge any either. Yet deposits in Europe, where rates have been negative for well over a year, have been stable. For commercial banks, a small interest charge on electronic deposits has proved to be bearable compared with the costs of safely storing stacks of cash—and not yet onerous enough to try to pass on to individual depositors.

That has resulted in an unavoidable squeeze on profits of banks, particularly in the euro area, where an interest rate of -0.3% applies to almost all commercial-bank reserves. (As in Switzerland and Denmark, Japan’s central bank has shielded banks from the full effect by setting up a system of tiered interest rates, in which the negative rate applies only to new reserves.) If interest rates go deeper into negative territory, profit margins will be squeezed harder—even in places where central banks have tried to protect banks. And if banks are not profitable, they are less able to add to the capital buffers that let them operate safely.

Perhaps the answer lies in the transient influence NIRP had on the value of the JPY. The Yen had risen quite sharply amid repatriation of risk assets during the first weeks of January, the BoJ announcement stemmed the tide briefly, until the flood resumed. The move beyond Qualitative easing – which provides “permanent” capital but does not make its presence felt to the same extent – should have caused the Yen to recommence its secular decline. With the liquidation of asset flows dominating the foreign exchanges the BoJ’s action was like a straw in the wind. Negative rates may be instantly recognizable whilst the purchase of common stock is masked by the daily ebb and flow of the stock market, but when investors are exiting “pursued by Bear” central bankers need to act with greater resolution – in time I expect the BoJ will adopt a more negative stance.

In the longer run NIRP will reduce the attractiveness of the Yen, which brings me to a second question – is NIRP is more or less damaging, to the economy, than the QQE which has gone before? I am assuming here, that QQE, like all the forms of quantitative easing to emanate from the coffers of the major central banks, is inherently damaging to the economy because these policies artificially lower the rate of interest, leading to malinvestment. This destroys long run demand by reducing the return on savings – especially important in a country where the population is rapidly aging. More pensioners with less income from their savings, more workers with inadequate pension provisions due to low interest rates and more defined benefit pension funds at risk of default due to insufficient funding of their liabilities. An added twist to this sorry situation is the propensity for unprofitable businesses to continue to operate, inexorably dragging down productivity. These are just a few of the unintended consequences of engineering interest rates below their natural level.

Investment Opportunities

In the past I have been bullish for the Nikkei on a currency hedged basis. The five year chart below shows the relative performance versus the Eurostoxx 50 over the last five years:-

Nikkei 225 vs Eurostoxx 50 - 5yr

Source: Yahoo Finance

Long Nikkei 225 hedged may still prove a positive strategy, although the up-trend appears to have failed in the near term, but I believe, in the long run, under the BoJ – “QQE with NIRP” regime, the best trade will be to short the Yen. Again, the near term the trend is unfavourable – repatriating capital flows may be the driving force – when the capital flows subside, the “Emperor” will be seen to have “less than zero” clothes. The Yen should run into resistance around 110 and again at 105 – keep your powder dry.

10yr JGBs yields nudged into negative territory this week, whilst the 40yr maturity has backed up from 1.12% to 1.23% over the past seven sessions. That may not seem much of a return, but longer dated maturities are likely to offer increasingly attractive carry potential as market participants attempt to establish the “limit of NIRP”. JGB futures offer a reasonably clean way of participating in any upside whilst hedging the majority of your currency exposure in either direction. You may be late to the trade, however, as the eight year, monthly yield chart below reveals:-

japan-government-bond-yield 2008-2016 Monthly

Source: Trading Economics

The US$ as a store of value


Macro Letter – No 20 – 26-09-2014

The US$ as a store of value

  • The US$ Index has broken above July 2013 highs as the US economy strengthens
  • The Trade Weighted Index also reflects this trend
  • But the Trade Balance remains in deficit

US$ Index - 25yr - Barchart.com


Source: Barchart.com

As the US economic recovery continues to gather momentum, what are the prospects for the US$ versus its principal trading partners? This is key to determining how swiftly and to what degree the Federal Reserve will tighten monetary conditions. Above is a 25 year monthly chart of the US$ Index and for comparison, below is the US$ Trade Weighted Index (TWI) as calculated by the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. The TWI shows the initial flight to quality during the onset of the Great Recession, the subsequent collapse as the Fed embarked on its increasingly aggressive programme of QE, followed by a more orderly recovery as the US economy began its long, slow rebound. It is still only a modest recovery and I would not be surprised to see a slow grind higher towards the initial post crisis highs around 113 – this is only a 50% retracement of the 2001-2011 range. In the longer term a return to the “strong dollar” policies of the late 1990’s might be conceivable if the current industrial renaissance of the US continues to gather momentum:-

US$ TWI - 1995-2014 - St Louis Fed

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

During the late 1990’s the US$ soared on a combination of strong economic growth, a technology asset bubble and relatively benign inflation due to the disinflationary forces of globalisation, emanating especially from China. During the current decade another technology revolution has been underway as the US becomes self-sufficient in energy production. I am not referring simply to “fracking” as this paper from the Manhattan Institute – New Technology for Old Fuel – April 2013 explains: –

Between 1949 and 2010, thanks to improved technology, oil and gas drillers reduced the number of dry holes drilled from 34 percent to 11 percent.

Global spending on oil and gas exploration dwarfs what is spent on “clean” energy. In 2012 alone, drilling expenditures were about $1.2 trillion, nearly 4.5 times the amount spent on alternative energy projects.

Despite more than a century of claims that the world is running out of oil and gas, estimates of available resources continue rising because of innovation. In 2009, the International Energy Agency more than doubled its prior-year estimate of global gas resources, to some 30,000 trillion cubic feet—enough gas to last for nearly three centuries at current rates of consumption.

In 1980, the world had about 683 billion barrels of proved reserves. Between 1980 and 2011, residents of the planet consumed about 800 billion barrels of oil. Yet in 2011, global proved oil reserves stood at 1.6 trillion barrels, an increase of 130 percent over the level recorded in 1980.

The dramatic increase in oil and gas resources is the result of a century of improvements to older technologies such as drill rigs and drill bits, along with better seismic tools, advances in materials science, better robots, more capable submarines, and, of course, cheaper computing power.

 The productivity gains are substantial within the Oil and Gas industry but the benefits are just beginning to percolate out to the broader economy.

Here is US GDP over the last twenty years: –

US GDP - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

Growth since the Great Recession has been relatively anaemic. To understand some of the other influences on the US$ we also need to consider the US Trade Balance: –

US Trade Balance - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

The USA continues to be the “consumer of last resort”. Here, by contrast are the EU GDP (1995-2014) and Trade Balance (1999-2014): –

EU GDP 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

EU Trade Balance - 1999-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

Europe is also a major export market for Chinese goods but nonetheless appears to rely on trade surpluses to generate sustainable growth. Since the Great Recession the EU has struggled to achieve any lasting GDP growth despite a significant increase in its trade surplus. This is because a large part of the terms of trade improvement has been achieved by reducing imports rather than increasing exports, especially in the Euro Zone (EZ) peripheral countries. The austerity imposed on EZ members by the ECB has encouraged some external trade but the prospect for any sustained recovery in EZ growth is limited.

China has, of course, been a major beneficiary of the US trade deficit, although, since the Great Recession, trade surplus data has become significantly more volatile: –

China Trade balance - 1995-2014 - Trading Economics

Source: Trading Economics

The chart above doesn’t really articulate the colossal increase in Chinese exports – between 2004 and 2009 China’s trade surplus increased ten-fold. Despite the more recent policy of “Rebalancing” towards domestic consumption, the latest data takes this surplus to a new record.

The US response to the trade deficit

The US government is concerned about the structural nature of their trade deficit but this is balanced by capital account surpluses as this report from the Congressional Research Service – Financing the U.S. Trade Deficit – March 2014 explains: –

According to the most commonly accepted approach to the balance of payments, macroeconomic developments in the U.S. economy are the major driving forces behind the magnitudes of capital flows, because the macroeconomic factors determine the overall demand for and supply of capital in the economy. Economists generally conclude that the rise in capital inflows can be attributed to comparatively favorable returns on investments in the United States when adjusted for risk, a surplus of saving in other areas of the world, the well-developed U.S. financial system, the overall stability of the U.S. economy, and the generally held view that U.S. securities, especially Treasury securities, are high quality financial instruments that are low risk. In turn, these net capital inflows (inflows net of outflows) bridge the gap in the United States between the amount of credit demanded and the domestic supply of funds, likely keeping U.S. interest rates below the level they would have reached without the foreign capital. These capital inflows also allow the United States to spend beyond its means, including financing its trade deficit, because foreigners are willing to lend to the United States in the form of exchanging goods, represented by U.S. imports, for such U.S. assets as stocks, bonds, U.S. Treasury securities, and real estate and U.S. businesses.

The chart below shows the continued increase in foreign holdings of US assets between 1994 and 2012: –


Source: US Commerce Department

The Congressional Research Service concludes:-

The persistent U.S. trade deficit raises concerns in Congress and elsewhere due to the potential risks such deficits may pose for the long term rate of growth for the economy. In particular, some observers are concerned that foreigner investors’ portfolios will become saturated with dollar denominated assets and foreign investors will become unwilling to accommodate the trade deficit by holding more dollar-denominated assets. The shift in 2004 in the balance of payments toward a larger share of assets being acquired by official sources generated speculation that foreign private investors had indeed reached the point where they were no longer willing to add more dollar-denominated assets to their portfolios. This shift was reversed in 2005, however, as foreign private investments rebounded.

Another concern is with the outflow of profits that arise from the dollar-denominated assets owned by foreign investors. This outflow stems from the profits or interest generated by the assets and represent a clear outflow of capital from the economy that otherwise would not occur if the assets were owned by U.S. investors. These capital outflows represent the most tangible cost to the economy of the present mix of economic policies in which foreign capital inflows are needed to fill the gap between the demand for capital in the economy and the domestic supply of capital.

Indeed, as the data presented indicate, it is important to consider the underlying cause of the trade deficit. According to the most commonly accepted economic approach, in a world with floating exchange rates and the free flow of large amounts dollars in the world economy and international access to dollar-denominated assets, macroeconomic developments, particularly the demand for and supply of credit in the economy, are the driving forces behind the movements in the dollar’s international exchange rate and, therefore, the price of exports and imports in the economy. As a result, according to this approach, the trade deficit is a reflection of macroeconomic conditions addressing the underlying macroeconomic factors in the economy likely would prove to be of limited effectiveness

In addition, the nation’s net international investment position indicates that the largest share of U.S. assets owned by foreigners is held by private investors who acquired the assets for any number of reasons. As a result, the United States is not in debt to foreign investors or to foreign governments similar to some developing countries that run into balance of payments problems, because the United States has not borrowed to finance its trade deficit. Instead the United States has traded assets with foreign investors who are prepared to gain or lose on their investments in the same way private U.S. investors can gain or lose. It is certainly possible that foreign investors, whether they are private or official, could eventually decide to limit their continued acquisition of dollar-denominated assets or even reduce the size of their holdings, but there is no firm evidence that such presently is the case.

The author appears to be saying that, so long as foreign private investors are prepared to continue acquiring US assets, the US need not be overly concerned about the deficit. Given that this should be negative for the US, what are the medium-term implications for the US$?

Gold vs US$

Evaluating the US$, in a world where all the major fiat currencies are attempting to competitively devalue, is fraught with difficulty, however, the price of gold gives some indication of market perceptions. It seems to indicate a resurgence of faith in the US currency:-

Gold - 25 year - Barchart

Source: Barchart.com

The substantial appreciation in the price of gold since 2001 is evident in the chart above, however, since the US economy began to recover from the Great Recession and financial markets perceived that QE3 might suffice to avert deflation, gold has lost some of its “safe-haven” shine. 10 yr US Treasuries yield 2.56%, the S&P 500 dividend yield is 1.87% – whilst these are historically low they look attractive compared to 10 yr German Bunds at 0.97% or 10 yr JGBs at 0.54%.

Leading Indicators

The Philadelphia Federal Reserve – Leading Indicators shows the breadth and depth of the prospects for the US economy, below is their latest heat map: –


Source: Philadelphia Federal Reserve

Below is a chart of the evolution of US Leading Indicators since 1995: –

US Leading Indicators 1995-2014 - St Louis Fed

Source: St Louis Federal Reserve

The relative strength of the Leading Indicators has not been as evident in the GDP data. This supports arguments such as CEPR – Is US economic growth over? September 2012 by Robert Gordon in which he promulgates his theory of structurally lower productivity growth in the US over the coming decades.

Personally I am not convinced that we have seen the end of productivity growth. I believe the extraordinary improvements in energy technology and productivity will begin to show up in broader data over the next few years.

Which leads me back to pondering on Governor Yellen’s recent comments after the FOMC Press Conference:-

…If we were only to shrink our balance sheet by ceasing reinvestments, it would probably take, to get back to levels of reserve balances that we had before the crisis. I’m not sure we will go that low but we’ve said that we will try to shrink our balance sheet to the lowest levels consistent with the efficient and effective implementation of policy. It could take to the end of the decade to achieve those levels.

This suggests the Federal Reserve may never sell any of the assets they have purchased but simply hold them to maturity. In an oblique way this view is supported by a paper from the Chicago Federal Reserve – Measuring fiscal impetus: The Great Recession in historical context which was published this week. They examine the link between changes in fiscal policy in the immediate wake of the Great Recession and more recently the slow pace of this cyclical recovery. Looking forward they opine: –

Fiscal policy during the Great Recession was more expansionary than in the average post-1960 recession, with declines in taxes, increased in transfers, and higher purchases all contributing to higher than typical fiscalimpetus. This pattern reversed itself following the cyclical trough, with declining purchases, particularly among subnational governments, accounting for most of the shortfall. By mid-2012, cumulative fiscal impetus was below the average level in other post-1960 recessions. Although fiscal restraint is expected to ease somewhat over the coming years, there is no indication that fiscal policy will be a meaningful source of economic growth in the near future.

If fiscal policy is unlikely to be a meaningful source of economic stimulus in the near future then monetary policy will have to do the lion’s share of the heavy lifting.

Where next for the US$

The economic fundamentals of the US economy look solid. Regions like Texas might even be in danger of overheating as this report from the Dallas Federal Reserve – Regional Growth: Full Steam Ahead – makes clear:-

The regional economy is surging, with the Texas Business Outlook Survey (TBOS) production and revenue indexes at multiyear highs and annualized job growth of 3.6 percent year to date. Second-quarter job growth was 4.6 percent annualized, and July job growth was just as fast. Energy production continues to increase, and the rig count has risen since last August in spite of a decline in oil prices. Texas exports rebounded in July.

… All told, the regional economy is growing at an unsustainable pace. Texas employment has grown at more than twice its long-run average rate over the past four months. Declines in unemployment measures have slowed, suggesting Texas is near full employment and slack is being depleted. The rapid growth has led to labor shortages, which can cause bottlenecks in production and hurt productivity. Tight labor and housing markets are leading to mounting wage pressures and increasing prices.

Dallas Federal Reserve President Richard Fisher has been a hawk for as long as I can remember, however, he plans to retire in April of next year. As does his fellow hawk Charles Plosser – President of the Philadelphia Fed, although Jeffrey Lacker – President of the Richmond Fed – will take up the hawkish cause in 2015. Nonetheless this weakens to case for any rapid tightening of policy beyond the tapering of QE.

Given the zero bound interest rate policies of all the major central banks, growth rather than expectations of widening interest rate differentials is more likely to determine the direction of currencies. Therefore, the slower the Federal Reserve act in tightening policy, the stronger the momentum of US GDP growth, the larger the capital inflows and the stronger the support for the US$.

Elsewhere, the prospects for EU growth are much weaker. Further QE is imminent after last week’s disappointing uptake of TLTRO funds – Bruegal – T.L.T.R.O. is Too Low To Resuscitate Optimism has more detail. The BoJ, meanwhile, continues with its policy of QQE yet, without the Third Arrow of the Abenomics – serious structural reform – Japan is unlikely to become an engine of economic growth. China continues its rebalancing but the momentum of growth is downward. In this environment the US looks like a land of opportunity to the optimist and the “least worst” safe-haven in an uncertain world for the pessimist. Either way, barring a substantial escalation in direct geopolitical risk, the US$ is unlikely to weaken. Technically the currency is looks set to appreciate further; in so doing this may create a virtuous circle reducing import price inflation and delaying – or possibly mitigating the need for – tightening by the Federal Reserve.